Personals Narrative

by Alyssa Pelish

CindySherman libraryRobert McKee, in that how-to book called Story that everyone in L.A. quoted to me without citing, says that story is what the world demands of us. I won’t quibble with this. There’s also a popular theory which has it that narrative is really all about desire (to tell one’s story, to find out what happens next, to be heard, etc.). In L.A., as it happens, it was typically in bars and in bed that both McKee’s dictums and people’s screenplay pitches were repeated to me.

Everyone has their theory about stories, about why we tell them. And we do tell them —even though most of the stories we tell on a daily basis are more like the unedited spools of a voice mail message than like the intricate involutions of, say, The Faerie Queene or the latest Terry Gilroy screenplay, or even the simple symmetry of an Aesop’s fable. Most of our stories have no compelling climax, or they fizzle out before they conclude and bore our listeners before they’re over, or they’re needlessly repetitive, or nothing really happens in them. But still we tell them. We’re story-telling animals — homo narratus — is the happy conventional wisdom. It’s how we make sense of stuff. Or pass on information. Or entertain each other. Or learn. Or something. And so it’s there to wonder about, and to explain: why do we tell stories? What evolutionary purpose, what social purpose, what purpose at all does it serve?

This is an incredibly popular question. Game theorists and literary theorists and evolutionary biologists — everybody, at one time or another — have taken a stab at explaining it. When I lived in L.A., people handed McKee’s pronouncements to me. When I was in grad school, I was partial to Peter Brooks’ and Roland Barthes’ ideas on the subject. But I have no novel theory. I’m not here to float a revolutionary explanation for cocktail party anecdotes or campfire tales. The thing is, I’ve become fascinated by the profiles on online dating sites. This is mainly because they’re telling stories for such a transparent purpose. The self-summaries, the self-justifications, the lists of favorite things and unique skills and continents traveled: they all constitute parts of an autobiography composed for public consumption, and they’re all being told, of course, to seduce.

This is one of the sexier ideas of narrative theory — the pairing of narrative and desire. So it’s somewhat gratifying to see it played out so unequivocally, and on such a large scale, in a non-academic, even non-literary, setting. There is never any question about the role desire plays in these profiles. Even if you consider the most guileless among them, every single profile is written out of desire. And not just the sort of desire in the abstract that’s so often used as a titillating metaphor in literary studies; people write these profiles because they’re looking for, at the very least, a date — and at most, a mate.

This, I think, is one of the more interesting aspects of the online dating profile. Not only does it offer up a self-narrative so obviously motivated by desire, but it aims to ring the cherries of would-be readers who will actually want to project themselves into its narrative. Any reader engagement in the great first-person narratives of literature, no matter how affecting they are, can do this only figuratively.[1] The personals profile favors the narrator who can literally draw readers into her world by telling the story of herself.[2] Theoretically, then, anyone serious about their personals profile has to find a way to encapsulate herself and her desires that will attract the kind of reader — er, date — she’s looking for. Self-narrative as peacock’s plumage. Sort of. (Some people are a lot better at this than other people.) But regardless, no one on OK Cupid or Nerve Personals or JDate is trying to write a best seller. (Even — one supposes — the guys who post only a color photograph of their nude torsos are making an appeal to a specific audience.) Most dating profiles, whether they realize it or not, are written for a niche audience — that is, their type. Consider, for instance, these two separate responses to a prompt common to the purlieus of online dating: The six things I couldn’t live without.

(a) 1. Protein 2. Carbohydrates 3. Lipids 4. Vitamins 5. Minerals 6. Water

(b) 1. The beauty of inflections

2. Or the beauty of innuendoes

3. arms long and small

4. love’s sad satiety

5. too much of a good thing

6. words to play with

Clearly, these narrators are writing for, and desirous of, two vastly different kinds of reader. And the right reader, one assumes, will recognize herself.

“The text you write must prove to me that it desires me,” Roland Barthes insists in that charming, maddening, vatic way he has. As it happens, he is talking about The Pleasure of the Text, and his depiction here of the successful dynamic between any writer and her reader is dead-on. It’s certainly an accurate description of any personals profile. A dating profile needs to seduce, but it will do this most successfully by demonstrating to the right reader that it desires her. (That is, it should be self-evident that a given profile was written for someone who appreciates that an itemized list of nutritional categories is a perfectly reasonable conception of the six things you could not live without. Or, alternately, that a given profile was written for someone who also best responds to impossible questions by way of literary quotation.) When people talk about their truly favorite novels — the ones they were immediately, effortlessly enamored of — they tend to say stuff like how they felt as if the author was speaking solely to them, as if the book had been written for them. These are highly seductive moments in the life of a reader. (Upon first reading Proust, Virginia Woolf wrote that he “so titillates my own desire for expression that I can barely set out the sentence.” Critic and theorist D.A. Miller remembers being “lost to the siren lure” of Jane Austen’s voice.) Something similar should happen with a dating profile. Not that most profiles will approximate the virtuoso levels of an Austen or a Proust, but that the right one will seem to be pitched to you, expressly. (As if it were implying something along the lines of that great Marquis de Sade avowal: “I speak only to those people capable of understanding me.”)

Possibly the most interesting section of the personals profile is the one that serves as a self-summation. It’s variously phrased from one site to another, but this section essentially prompts a person to give a summary of himself. (On OK Cupid, for instance, it really is as blunt as my self-summary.) What’s interesting about this section is how people interpret it — because it can be so differently interpreted. I’ve seen everything from a response as telescopic as David Thewlis’s précis of evolution in Naked to the narrator’s self delineated via a cartographical conceit. Some people construe this section as the best place to list all the places they’ve lived, in chronological order. Others respond with a string of adjectives, and leave it at that. Increasingly popular is a small collection of minute particulars about the self (the walk-on part in a Sydney Lumet film one had as a child, one’s highest score at Scrabble, the etymology of one’s college nickname, a historical account of one’s tattoos, etc.). There are those people who respond with the same synopsis of their education and career that you assume they must use in job interviews. And just as common are the people who preface such synopses with the disclaimer of their own disbelief at actually being here, filling out an online dating profile.[3]

The thing that’s striking about all these varied approaches to self-narration is how much, inevitably, they omit. Of course, they do; even the most comprehensive of biographies (auto or not) still leaves whole patches of a person in shadow. But the dating profile is, by nature, abbreviated; the responses that constitute it reveal its narrator only in glimpses. Which is how it should be. This is another instance where Barthes is, actually, right on. He has, rather wonderfully, observed that it is the place “where the garment gapes” that is “the most erotic portion of a body.” He goes on to describe at some length this “flash itself which seduces,” e.g., “the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and sleeve).” These flashes, the silhouette (as it were) of an actual person, in a personals profile should, then, leave you wanting more.

Cindy Sherman airmail

But that’s the thing. As I very often hear people attest — these flashes, the entire narrative of possibility that not just one individual profile but the extant conglomeration of them constitutes, is often more seductive than the reality of a date. Because what is desire if not a continued sense of possibility? Friends of mine describe phases of checking in on a site three or four times a day. I myself have sat up till 2 a.m. on some nights, browsing possibility.

There is this terrific Balzac story, Sarrasine, in which the narrator, who simply desires a particularly comely marquise, manages to extract the promise of a rendezvous with her on the condition that he tell her the story behind some mysterious circumstances she has witnessed. The marquise agrees to their contract, and she does, in fact, hang on every word of the fairly lengthy story he tells, which involves a number of elaborate plot twists. As long as the truth, the story’s ending, remains unknown to the marquise, she wants more; she stays with the narrator. When the ending, as it must, finally arrives, the young woman is horrified by the revelation — and rejects the narrator.


[1] Which, it should be obvious, isn’t a disparagement. It’s very hard to outdo Jane Eyre or Alex Portnoy.

[2] Intriguingly, the original personals profile — the lonely hearts ad — emerged in the eighteenth century right as the novel was coming into its own. The eighteenth-century novel was undeniably a form that reflected a new interest in the autobiographical: an interest in stories on the level of the individual and her desires. In a few lines of advertisement in papers and pamphlets, men — and eventually women — spoke of their upbringings, fortunes, and marital requirements. Not as expansive as Robinson Crusoe or Pamela — but still, the autobiographical outline in each genre is, I think, as synonymous with the individual as his desire.

[3] The dating profile, like any genre, has its recognizable clichés. A seemingly undying cliché of these profiles is the person who begins by expressing disbelief or embarrassment at his own presence on a dating site. This is the reluctant narrator. A Bartleby, apparently, whose desires got the better of him. But, by now, a good decade after online dating sites took off, this narrator is clearly not familiar enough with the genre or its history to recognize the staleness of his confession. Another old standard of these profiles is the narrator who blithely insists on her inability to be classified. This person’s alleged novelty lies in her being equally at home in jeans and in an evening gown, at a dive bar and at Lincoln Center, Netflixing a movie or going out dancing, reading Schopenhauer or playing video games. This tactic must stem from an intention to demonstrate one’s multidimensionality. Yet again, such narrators overlook their own ubiquity even as they claim their exceptionalism.

Possibly the best thing about these clichés is other readers’ responses to them. I have come across more than a few profiles who specifically ask not to be contacted by “chicks wearing jeans and an evening gown who are playing video games in a dive bar at Lincoln center.”

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